Tips for the first-time home canner

166380548My mother-in-law gave me her pressure canner, and I’m hoping to do some canning for the first time this year. How should I prepare?

One of the best resources for beginner and experienced canners alike is the National Center for Home Food Preservation, hosted by the University of Georgia,http://nchfp.uga.edu.

The site offers free access to many reliable sources of canning information, including the ability to download the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Complete Guide to Home Canning. (Note: You can also purchase a spiral-bound printed version of the USDA guide for $18 from the Education Store of Purdue Extension, https://mdc.itap.purdue.edu/.)

Ohio State University Extension also offers food preservation information: go tohttp://ohioline.osu.edu, click on “Food,” and click on “Food Preservation” for a series of fact sheets. You’ll probably want to start with the four-page Canning Basics, which includes other recommended books for canning. Classes are also available; check out one near you:http://go.osu.edu/fdpreserv.

As you gather materials and start doing some homework, there are a few other things you can do to make sure you’re all set when your garden bounty is ready for preserving:

  • Get the dial gauge on the pressure canner tested to make sure it’s giving an accurate reading. Check with your local Extension office for information about this service. If the gauge reads high or low by more than 2 pounds at 5, 10 or 15 pounds per square inch (psi), you’ll need to have it replaced.
  • It would be helpful to read the manual that came with the canner. If you don’t have it, you might be able to find it online, or you can try to contact the manufacturer for a copy.
  • Make sure you have all the equipment you’ll need for canning. You didn’t mention if you also received the accessories you may need, such as a jar lifter, a bubble freer or a funnel with an extra-wide mouth. You might also want to stock up now on jars and lids.
  • Find out what your altitude is. At more than 1,000 feet above sea level, water boils at a lower temperature, which means your canning process may not kill all bacteria if you don’t follow instructions for high-altitude canning. Some people are surprised that even Midwest states like Ohio have areas above 1,000 feet. There are plenty of smartphone apps that can tell you the altitude at your location, or you can inquire at your local Extension office or Soil Conservation Service. Or, go to the U.S. Geological Survey’s website at http://geonames.usgs.gov/pls/gnispublic and click the menus for your state and county for a list of elevations at various locations in your area.

No need to ‘detox’ with special diet

161914255Every once in a while I hear someone mention that they have either fasted or gone on a restricted diet to “detox” — and, of course, to lose a lot of weight relatively quickly. Is this a good practice? Is it safe?

You’re right to be skeptical. Any diet that promises a quick fix, encourages a severe restriction of calories, advises you to eat only certain foods or requires that foods be eaten only in specific combinations screams “fad diet.”

Detox diets claim to “detoxify” the body, allowing toxins and contaminants that have accumulated over time to flush out. You can find many versions of the detox diet, but they usually start with a very low calorie fast followed by drinking juice and eating small amounts of fresh produce. Many detox diets recommend an enema or some other type of physical cleansing of the colon.

Here’s the thing: The body already has some perfectly good systems in place to detoxify the body. They’re called the liver, the kidneys and the colon. Although supporters of detox diets disagree, there’s no evidence to support the idea that those systems need a substantial restriction of food and calories to help them remove harmful substances from the body.

Some people claim the detox diet helps them feel healthier and more energetic, but there could be several explanations for this. For example, their normal diet might be heavy in saturated fats, refined grains and heavily processed foods. Taking a break from those foods would certainly make your body feel different. Eating fruits and vegetables after severely restricting food intake for an extended period might also make someone feel better.

But putting yourself on any very low calorie diet has its downsides. One is that you may lose muscle, which would cause your metabolism to dip and make it easier to gain weight. The only way to build that muscle back would be to start a regimen of weight-bearing exercise — not a bad thing in and of itself, but probably not the result you were hoping for.

Instead of detox or other fad diets, nutritionists recommend eating a balanced diet centered on lean proteins, vegetables and whole fruits, whole grains, and a modest amount of healthy (unsaturated) fats. Also, don’t skip meals, especially breakfast, and limit portions to a sensible size. Finally, if you are thinking of making drastic changes to your diet, it’s always a good idea to talk with your doctor first.

Healthy eating tips the easy way

78036797I’m interested in eating more healthfully and hopefully losing a few pounds, but I don’t want to track everything I eat or count calories. Do you have any general tips that could help?

Many people do find that keeping a food log helps them lose weight, but if you’re not interested in doing that right now, yes, of course you can take other steps. Here are some tips:

  • The Harvard Medical School suggests cutting back on carbohydrates, particularly from sugar-sweetened beverages such as soft drinks, sports drinks and energy drinks and from refined-carbohydrate foods, including many types of bread, cereal, pasta, snack foods, and French fries and other types of fried potatoes. Instead, choose water or unsweetened beverages, and whole-grain foods that offer fiber and other nutrients. Look for at least 2 grams of fiber per serving.
  • Pay special attention to portion sizes, even if you’re eating something you consider to be good for you. A study recently published in the International Journal of Obesity showed that people tend to eat more of a food if it’s labeled as “healthy,” even if it has the same number of calories as similar options.
  • Similarly, don’t assume cutting fat is always healthier. Some low- or no-fat food products replace the fat with added refined-carbohydrate ingredients — not necessarily a benefit. And, research has shown a little fat, such as that in dressings or avocados, helps the body absorb nutrients in leafy greens. Instead, focus on limiting saturated fat and eliminating trans fat, opting instead for unsaturated fats.
  • Eat a wide variety of produce, whole grains, and beans and other legumes to get a broad range of nutrients. In particular, choose fruits and vegetables of many colors, especially green, red, yellow, orange and dark purple. The pigments in colorful produce contain vitamins and phytochemicals that are linked with a lower risk of certain cancers and heart disease.
  • Incorporate more fish and small amounts of nuts into your diet. They are good sources of protein and healthy fats, and Americans tend to not get enough of them.
  • Never shop for groceries on an empty stomach. A study recently published in JAMA Internal Medicine, a journal of the American Medical Association, provided compelling evidence supporting what you probably already know: People tend to choose more high-calorie foods if they shop when they’re hungry. Eat first and you’ll be healthier for it.

Do homework before eating out

167569586I recently noticed that my favorite fast-food restaurant lists the calories of what I’m eating on the wrapper. I was shocked at how high the calories were. Is it just me, or are most people unaware of how many calories are in fast food?

It’s not just you. Many people are blissfully unaware of how many calories they consume, particularly when they eat out.

And that can be a large portion of the diet, considering that about half of Americans’ food dollars are spent on meals prepared outside the home.

Some restaurants already include calorie counts on their menus, which could help people like you who want to make better choices. Unfortunately, though, the implementation of a 2010 federal law requiring any restaurant or other food-service operation that has 20 or more locations to list calories at the point of purchase has stalled as the Food and Drug Administration tries to iron out the details.

But in many cases you can find such information relatively easily. Just go to a restaurant’s website and see if it has nutrition information listed for its menu items. If not, do a Web search — several diet and fitness websites offer such information, gathered from the restaurants or from members of the sites.

Just guessing about calorie counts isn’t a good strategy. In fact, a study recently published in the journal of the British Medical Association showed that Americans tend to underestimate calories, at least in fast-food meals.

The researchers asked more than 3,300 adults, adolescents and school-age children visiting McDonald’s, Burger King, Subway, KFC, Dunkin’ Donuts and Wendy’s in four cities in New England to estimate the calories in meals they had just purchased. Then, using the customer’s receipt and the restaurants’ nutrition information, they calculated the actual calories in the meals.

More than two-thirds of the participants underestimated the calories in their meals, with about one-quarter underestimating by 500 calories or more.

Keep in mind that knowing how many calories you’re consuming is just the first step. You also need to know how many calories you should be consuming. For that information, which is based in part on age, gender and daily physical activity, see the chart from the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans at http://bit.ly/calneeds. That way you can judge whether your favorite fast-food meal is within the range of your calorie needs.